The Exorbitant Price Of Censorship
I published this post first on JuST THINK. To stay up to date, come to https://justthink.substack.com/ and subscribe for free!
Two issues grabbed my attention this week . Both are close to my heart, they are interrelated, and they have major economic implications.
Covid amnesty or Nuremberg trial?
The Atlantic published a provocatively titled essay “Let’s declare a pandemic amnesty”, by Brown University economist Emily Oster. She calls on everyone to leave behind the acrimonious debate on the pandemic; we need to forgive each other and move on. Her article triggered a wave of outraged pushback; some of the best examples I have read include Eugyppius and Unmasked by Ian Miller here on Substack.
I share the outrage. Oster admits key restrictions imposed against Covid-19 have been proved ineffective and misguided: masks, lockdowns, school closures and vaccine mandates to name just the four horsemen of the Covid apocalypse. But, she argues, those who advocated and mandated these measures meant well, and none of us knew enough. Those who got it right, got it right by chance.
This is astonishingly dishonest:
Key features of the pandemic were evident from the very early data: that the risk was high for the elderly and immunocompromised but minimal for the young, for example; previous research had already demonstrated the inefficacy of masks; the uselessness of lockdowns became quickly evident by comparing counties and countries with and without lockdowns; and shortly after vaccines were rolled out it became apparent that they did not prevent infection or contagion. All this evidence was systematically ignored at every step of the way.
In recounting her personal experience, Oster shows herself to be one of those who totally ignored the available data and evidence — shocking for a PhD economist trained to seek and analyze data.
“We didn’t know,” says Oster. Yet advocates of draconian restrictions professed absolute certainty backed by The Science. They ostracized, boycotted and canceled those who argued against the consensus– from the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, condemned as dangerous by their own colleagues in the health care community and by public health authorities, to the countless individuals who lost jobs and friends for refusing the vaccine.
Now we see mounting evidence of the adverse side effects of vaccines, of the mental and physical health damage caused by lockdowns, delayed medical screenings, and school closures — and we are all experiencing the economic consequences: high inflation and a looming recession. We have mounting evidence of how information was censored for fear that it would undermine support for the official policies. (A lot of this censorship and misinformation was blatantly evident at the time; if you want a few laughs and a walk down memory lane check out my Ministry of Truth and scroll from the bottom up).
It would be irresponsible to forgive and forget, pretending that we could not have done any better. Especially because the mistakes continue — see the ongoing push to vaccinate young children. Data and information are still being withheld.
Yes we should move on. But we need to understand and acknowledge why the pandemic reaction was botched so badly — particularly because this reaction ignored key lessons from previous epidemics, for example on data collection, as I noted in a May 2020 blog inspired by Hans Rosling. And we need to put in place mechanisms and safeguards to make sure next time we do a better job — this recent post by Vinay Prasad would make an excellent starting point.
Emily Oster would like an amnesty. Others would prefer a Nuremberg trial. What we need is a failure analysis so we can agree on why we got it so wrong. And it needs to be a transparent exercise this time.
The Stanford Graduate School of Business Classical Liberalism Initiative has convened an Academic Freedom Conference. If you have not been following the debate on academic freedom, you will be either puzzled or alarmed at the news. Alarmed is the appropriate reaction. The introduction to the conference’s agenda details why — I quote it below from John Cochrane’s blog:
Academic freedom, open inquiry, and freedom of speech are under threat as they have not been for decades. Visibly, academics are “canceled,” fired, or subject to lengthy disciplinary proceedings in response to academic writing or public engagement. Less visibly, funding agencies, university bureaucracies, hiring procedures, promotion committees, professional organizations, and journals censor some kinds of research or demand adherence to political causes. Many parts of universities have become politicized or have turned into ideological monocultures, excluding people, ideas, or kinds of work that challenge their orthodoxy. Younger researchers are afraid to speak and write and don’t investigate promising ideas that they fear will endanger their careers.
Academia was always meant to be a sanctuary for intellectual exploration, freedom of thought and open debate — the forces that ultimately drive innovation, better institutions and rising living standards. If we lose this, we lose our way of life.
The first day of the conference has already offered scores of examples of this dystopian transformation of universities — some hilariously surreal, others outright chilling — and the impact it is having on research and on how students are being trained to (not) think.
You can easily see the connection between these two issues. Both arise from a creeping censorship justified by an appeal to a higher cause: “we can’t allow anyone to question the lockdowns — otherwise we are all going to die”; “we can’t allow this line of research, its results might have unacceptable social consequences.” This attitude inspires a sense of righteousness and security: “I know what’s right and I will stand for it.” But stifling open debate always leads to the worst outcome.
The economic consequences are clear and clearly disastrous — the dogmatic response to the pandemic has inflicted the worst economic disruption on record; curtailing academic freedom will cripple innovation and economic growth. More momentous long-term implications than even a Fed policy decision.
Censorship carries an exorbitant price.